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How to talk about desire

Updated: 5 days ago

The eponymous post coital cigarette.
Sunlit apartment, Catania, Sicily

'If you can sit in your seat and be at the receiving end of attention, and not have it harm you and not do any harm to the person who is providing it. Assuming that what they are saying is inviting, assuming that what they are saying, recognises you. It doesn't demean or diminish you, but recognises all of who you are. You can sit in your seat and you can receive that and you can make yourself available to benefit from it, then know in turn what you feel towards the other person. That's the safest sex you will ever have’ (Group, 2020.)

In my experience, good enough psychological therapy involves these sorts of interactions. Moreover, the professional boundaries of psychological therapy encourage these sort of interactions. This is because psychological therapy is different to physically caring for someone. Some parts of reality remain in fantasy.

'because you are my therapist I can imagine you to be my perfect partner' (Benjamin, 1995.)

Such imaginings often include erotic idealisations. Erotic, meaning relating to, or tending to arouse, sexual desire/excitement. Erotic idealisations, for the patient, may offer a fantasy of becoming everything to the figure of authority. Who in turn would sacrifice that authority to form a union with the patient. Temporarily forgetting that 'the mother (our original authority figure) is everything to the child but the child is not everything to the mother' (ibid.)

In a safe therapeutic space, clients can better understand, experience and master sexual desire.'[So] through the playground of erotic transference the patient comes to be in charge of her/his own passion...where objects were, subjects must be' (ibid.) However, this process is not automatic. Erotic idealisations in therapy can also be unhelpful to both parties (Renn, 2020.)

Therapists can make erotic idealisations helpful. In particular by communicating the common erotic idealisations of therapists. Perhaps of saviour; of completing the other; the ideal parent; innocent and omnipotent in the face of another person's needs. Escaping from the responsibility of authority, of being 'the one supposed to know,' fantasising as to indulging in omnipotent pleasure seeking. Amongst many more (Benjamin,1995.)

Sharing these common erotic idealisations can reduce the guilt, or shame, for the client in their own erotic idealisation. Reminding the client that erotic idealisations are both ordinary and unavoidable. Indeed, it often seems, the unconscious mind only wants to kill or have sex with other people (Gabbard, 2006.)

Erotic idealisations may also be helpfully discussed in therapy. Demonstrating the value of putting words to our desire. Helpful additional interactions. So the client can remember and/or learn how other people can become both useful objects and collaborative subjects for them. Independent from each other and yet dependent on each other. Both separate and similar.

In sum erotic idealisations in professional therapeutic practice are inevitable. They can be helpful and unhelpful. Therapists, and clients, who are aware of these possibilities are more likely to achieve safe, effective, clinical practise. As such I have fleshed out, helpful and unhelpful, uses of erotic idealisations below :

Helpful uses of erotic idealisation

1) As a source for the practise of giving and receiving compliments. As part of how we learn to like each other. As a means to enjoy each other's company. As caricatures of our true selves. To help the repair of ruptures in the relationship. In recognising the commonality of this mutual activity.

2) As an additional way to regulate intimacy. A possibility for distancing/approaching and so retain a sense of control. Reducing overwhelming anxiety or helplessness. Recognising that sexuality can be a helpful place to go, an achievement. That sometimes reduces the possibility of violence.

3) For placing the relationship in the context of other relationships and wider culture. In recognising who we each other look like and who we remind each other of. Including other fantasies and real relationships. Helping us remember other minds.

4) As a means to identify the non erotic parts of life and our subconscious minds.

5) As a way to communicate our effect on each other. So as to understand ourselves better and recognise both parties interpersonal power, to help and/or harm each other.

6) As an opportunity to experience desire in a safe context.

Unhelpful uses of erotic idealisation

1) Sustaining unrealistic hopes e.g. perfect reparation by another person; that things might not need to be discussed; that difficult experience may not need to be borne. That we do not need to overcome the pleasure principle.

2) Promoting 'magical acts of a desperate person' (Phillips, 2013.) Acting to change the reality of a relationship through strength of feeling. Just as a child does in a tantrum. A type of un-consented sadomasochistic sexual excitement. Interactions that do not seem in the client's, or therapist's, best interest (Perry, July 8, 2020.)

3) Seeking triumph over authority and/or another person's vulnerability. 'Liberation for the slavish love of summoning up the powerful figures and making the erotic impulses is impossible to destroy someone in absentia, in effigy' (Benjamin, ibid.)

3) Using idealisation to prompt intimate physical contact. Physical contact is culturally ambiguous. For example a hug can be mistaken for a cuddle. Depending on how each person interprets the same act. Intimate physical contact needs to be practised in other relationships (Briscoe, 2020.)


Benjamin, J. (1995). Like subjects, love objects: Essays on recognition and sexual difference. Yale University Press.

Briscoe, J. (2020). What happens when your relationship with your therapist turns into and affair. The Observer,

Gabbard, G. O. (2006). The Schopenhauer Cure: A Novel. American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(6), 1118-1118.

Group (2020). S1, Ep7: Breaking the rules, YouTube,

Perry, A., (July 8, 2020). Some ethics of co-productive relationships,

Phillips, A. (2013). The magical act of a desperate person: on tantrums. The London Review of Books, 35(5), 19-20.

n.b. I have also collated a list of other free resources on psychological therapy. To access them : CLICK HERE

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